Polite = Indirect

Although some people are more direct than others as a matter of personality (and there is a gender stereotype than women are less direct than men), most people do use at least a little indirectness in most situations to minimize perceived social threats (or “face threats,” as discussed in the power & solidarity module), increasing their level of indirectness in situations that involve greater risks. Most people tend to be more direct in their online communications, because without all the visual and vocal cues, indirectness is at greater risk of being misunderstood.  Most people tend to be completely direct only

  • when the situation is urgent (so there’s no time for politeness),
  • when the message is extremely important (so they don’t want to risk it being misunderstood), or
  • when they are angry or otherwise extremely emotional (in which case others understand the directness as an effect of being “overpowered” by one’s emotions).

Therefore, if you speak directly all the time, you will be perceived as angry and as arrogant, because you seem to think everything you say is vitally important, more important than what everyone else is saying.  If you don’t vary your style, becoming increasingly indirect when committing more socially threatening acts, you will come across as rude (brusque, abrupt, cold, uncaring, etc.), because you don’t seem to care about others’ needs.

You don’t need to change your speech style dramatically or waste much time to add a little bit of indirectness, if you just want to show continual attention to others’ feelings. That indirectness can function as social lubricant, insulating the relationship from the bumps and jolts it would otherwise routinely suffer. If you incorporate this into your speech regularly, it becomes a habit; after a bit of practice, you will no longer have to think about it, so you won’t perceive it as an effort or a waste of time. (This is, of course, how most people do it: on “autopilot.”) Then, when you recognize a greater social threat, you can deliberately and strategically increase your indirectness. It may take you an extra minute to re-craft a sentence to be less direct (and it may require more words or even extra sentences to accomplish), but you should think of this as an investment of time, not a waste: if you are more polite, people will be more willing to comply with your requests, to work with you, and you will avoid the time that would otherwise be spent resolving frustrating miscommunications and making up for unintended hurting of feelings.

Making Inferences

All indirect speech requires listeners to make inferences to figure out the speaker’s underlying message. This requires some “theory of mind”: the ability to reason through what others are thinking. This ability is greatly enhanced if you are able to pick up on a wider variety of social signals (as discussed throughout this website). But don’t be discouraged: Even people with excellent communication and social skills sometimes get these wrong, or only realize what the speaker really intended long after the conversation has ended.

Search for the relevance of what they did say. There are dozens (actually, more!) ways that speakers can express any given message with varying levels of (in)directness. But they don’t just choose one at random. Always ask yourself, “Why would this person say these particular words to me in this particular way at this particular time?” For instance, if someone says, “It’s getting late,” why do you think they felt the need to point this out? If you’re working on a task together, perhaps they’re worried you won’t finish it on time. (In this case, they probably said it anxiously.) If you’re visiting in their home, perhaps they’d like you to leave now so they can go to bed. (In which case, they probably said it tiredly.) If they’re visiting in your home, they’re probably signalling that they’ll be leaving very soon, so they can go to bed. Etc.

Of course, we make inferences all the time in conversation, not just when someone is being indirect for politeness reasons. Imagine how much detail we’d have to give in casual conversation if we couldn’t trust people to “connect the dots.” Our conversations would never end! (If you say “Let’s go to the Golden Dragon for dinner,” I can just say “I don’t like buffets.” I don’t have to say “I don’t like buffets, and the Golden Dragon only has a buffet, you can’t order off a menu there, so let’s go somewhere else.”) I expect you to understand the relevance of my comment to your suggestion, and to make the correct inferences accordingly.

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Most people are so accustomed to expressing themselves indirectly (for politeness reasons, to minimize perceived social threats) that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. If you suspect that they aren’t directly saying what they mean, that there’s some other message they’re hoping you’ll decode, ask them! Of course you should ask them nicely; there’s no reason to accuse them of being deceptive or sneaky or impossible to understand or…. Most of the time, they’re being indirect in a (perhaps misguided) attempt to protect your feelings. In the “It’s getting late,” example, it would be fine to say, “Yes, it is, but I’m not sure why you’re bringing it up. Do you need to get going?”

Ways of Being Indirect: Strategies You Can Live Without


Sarcasm

Sarcasm is, of course, indirect speech (because one says something one does not literally mean), but it’s tricky enough that it has its own page. (Unlike most of the other topics discussed on this page, sarcasm is often intended to be somewhat hostile.)

Metaphors and Similes

People will sometimes use metaphors and similes just to be playful and creative in their expression, and sometimes to avoid making direct statements that may be unwelcome. Saying that X is (like) Y does not directly describe the qualities they have in common, but the intention is not to mislead. (A metaphor claims equivalence between two objects – X is Y – while a simile includes “like” or “as,” explicitly comparing objects.) The listener should be able to figure out what (underlying) claim is being made. For example, saying someone “is (like) a snake” is should evoke images of slithering, biting (with venom!), and shedding of skin, all of which are presumably negative qualities.

There is no reason for you yourself to incorporate metaphors or similes into your speech, if you do not enjoy them, and there is no reason for you not to ask someone to elaborate on or explain their metaphors and similes. If they make a statement of comparison or equivalence, and you’re not sure which trait(s) the statement is intended to evoke, feel free to say (going back to the snake example), “I’m not sure what you mean by that. Are you saying he’s sneaky or potentially dangerous, or both?” If someone says “She’s a Porsche, not a Hyundai,” you might gather that this is intended as a compliment, but you might still ask, “Do you mean she’s beautiful and exciting, or that she has really expensive tastes?” If you’re not familiar with Porsches and/or Hyundais, you might say, “Sorry, I know those are cars, but that’s all I know about them, so I have no idea what you’re saying about her.”

Idioms 

Idioms are commonly used phrases that have a figurative meaning, and so do not mean literally what the sum of the parts would, e.g., “kicked the bucket” to mean died. These have to be learned as units, as if they were single words, and there are many websites available that keep lists of these in English, so we’re not going to deal with them here. (See the recommended reading section below.) These often come across as “folksy” (and therefore informal), but at times they may also seem inappropriate or odd. If you don’t have a good “ear” for the situation (as most people with social challenges do not), you’re better off just having a passive knowledge of these so you can understand them when others use them, rather than trying to incorporate them into your own speech.

Essential Ways of Being Indirect


hedges

Hedges such as kind of (kinda), sort of, maybe, perhaps (not to mention like, I think, I guess, I mean, and tag questions such as don’t you think?, you know?, right?) are ambiguous. They may express uncertainty about the content of the speaker’s message (and thus appear weak), but quite often they are a sign of social uncertainty: I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, I hesitate to put myself above you by claiming greater expertise or knowledge, I want to you know that I do care what you think, etc. Many people have a gender stereotype about these, that it is “feminine” to use more hedges (either because they think women are weaker than men or because they think women are more polite than men), but both sexes tend to use more of them when trying to minimize social threats. If you never use hedges, you project an image of complete certainty but also disregard for others. People may respect your knowledge and expertise, but they will not think you want to have friends.

disguised commands and requests for action

People bark commands at their dogs (“Sit! Stay!”), but in most human-to-human interactions, this is highly marked and socially threatening behavior. Even if I have the “right” to order you around (a parent to a child, a teacher to a student, a boss to an employee, etc.), completely ignoring your feelings is likely to damage our relationship over time. For this reason, people tend to avoid using bare imperatives, unless it’s clear that the situation is urgent, or that I’m “ordering” you to do something I think you want to do; for example, a hostess urging a guest:  “Come in! Sit down! … Have a cookie!”

How Commands are Made Listener-Friendly

 One easy way to adapt your speech to be more listener-friendly is to routinely rephrase your requests for action (even fairly trivial ones) as questions, saving the imperative form for when you’re angry. This is so conventionalized that it will not lead to any misunderstandings or waste any time. Phrasing requests for action as questions shows that you care about the other person’s independence and autonomy, that you aren’t assuming you are superior to them (even if you have the societal authority to order them to do things):

  • “Could/can you …?”
  • “Would/will you …?”
  • “Would you mind …?”
  • “Could I ask you to …?”
  • “Do you think you should…?”   etc.

Note that these sound even friendlier when hedges are added in:

  • “Could/can you possibly/perhaps…?”
  • “Would you mind perhaps/maybe…?”
  • “Could I ask you to just…?”
  • “Do you think you should maybe…?” etc.

Likewise, a command may be disguised as a statement, which sounds slightly more forceful than the question forms (but again, hedging helps defuse the forcefulness):

  • “I would (really) like it if you would (just)…”   (friendlier)
  • “I think you should maybe…”  (friendly-ish)
  • or just “You should…” (not very friendly)

How Can You Tell if a Command (or Request for Action) is Implied?

  1. A future action is specified or implied.
  2. The speaker believes you are capable of performing this action.
  3. The speaker believes you would not do the action without his/her asking you to do so.
  4. You believe the speaker would like you to perform the action.

Notice that no particular words or sentence structures are required in this recipe. Someone could “command” you to answer the phone by looking pointedly back and forth between you and the ringing phone. Or they could say statements like “The phone’s ringing” or “It’s probably for you” or questions like “Is that the phone?” or “Aren’t you going to get that?”

If you’re not sure whether someone is implying a command, it’s okay to ask. “Did you want me to….?” “I’m sorry, were you asking me to…?” (This does not commit you to obeying the command, it just helps to make it clear what the intention of the speaker was.)

Questions are Commands, Too!

When you think about it, questions are really just disguised commands to give a particular piece of information (“How old is he?” = “Tell me how old he is!”).  Thus, sometimes to be extra polite and avoid the appearance of imposing, people will disguise their requests for information as statements. (“I wonder how old he is,” “I wish I knew how old he was,” “You probably know how old he is,” or just “I don’t know how old he is.”)  As with requests for action, no particular words or sentence structures are required. People often pass questions along just with gaze and facial expression. That is, someone asks me a question, but I don’t know the answer, so I look at you with my eyebrows raised, so you’ll supply the information.  

Indirect “Dances” of Negotiation

The more trivial the action, the more blunt someone may be about asking you to do it. “Grab me a napkin” is fine, but “Lend me $500” is not. Asking someone to tell you a fact about the world is trivial; asking them to reveal something very personal is not. Typically, with non-trivial actions, people will lead up to an actual request.

First, they might be quite indirect about it, vaguely implying a need or a wish, hoping that you will volunteer to do the implied action that would solve the problem. If you do, the dance is done.

If you do not volunteer, they will gauge your reaction to their suggestion. (They will assume that you understood the disguised request, and are sending social signals in response.) They will weigh your level of apparent discomfort against the strength of their wish for you to comply. If you seem very uncomfortable, they may back off (“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that you should….”)

If you do not seem too uncomfortable and/or their wish is strong, they will be more direct (but probably still not use imperatives) in their request.

This loop may recur several times: a back-and-forth negotiation that you may think is a big waste of time, but it reassures both parties that even if they can’t both have their needs mutually satisfied on this particular point, they do both care about each other, so the relationship is strong enough to endure.

If someone persists with a request (whether explicit or implied) and you don’t want to comply…


Showing discomfort

If you signal your discomfort with the request (without jumping to a refusal), you give the other person the opportunity to withdraw it before the situation becomes too awkward.
There are multiple ways that we signal discomfort, and these signs typically co-occur, so if you are the one making the request and monitoring the signs you receive in response, it won’t matter if you miss one or two, as long as you notice others. As you get better at noticing these, you will realize that you can also get useful information as to the degree of the discomfort: the more signs there are, and the more intense the signs are, the more uncomfortable the person is feeling. If the person is “whispering” discomfort (with minimal signs), there’s a good chance you can get what you want with a bit of extra politeness, but if the person is “screaming” discomfort, you’d do better to back off!

Refusal

If you just say “no,” or ignore the request, you may damage the relationship. Presumably, this person had reasons for asking you to do this thing, and you will appear to not care about them (the reasons or the person) if you just say no or ignore the request. You may feel that the person was rude, or that you really should not be asked to do this thing – but even so, if you want to preserve the relationship, you need to take some care with your reply. It’s certainly okay to refuse many requests, but doing so politely shows that you do care about the relationship.

Refusing to answer a direct question when you have the information is a hostile act. You have a constitutional right to silence, but refusing to answer a question may cause damage to the relationship (and having social relationships is a privilege, not a right). That doesn’t mean you have to answer every question people ask of you; just that you have to do some fancy politeness work to avoid giving offense. Some people will pretend they can’t answer when they just don’t want to (saying “I don’t know,” even when they do know) to avoid the extra work. Of course, there are certain things you can’t logically claim not to know, so this option isn’t always available, but even when you can do this, it’s risky. If the person finds out later that you did know, they will be angry because it will be clear that you intentionally deceived them, not to spare their feelings (which is usually the justification for “little white lies”), but to spare your own.

If you allow for some negotiation, everyone comes away happier. If you say no right away (or ignore the command), you are not allowing for negotiation. There’s always the possibility that you have misunderstood what they wanted you to do (especially if the command was indirect), or that you didn’t understand their reasons for asking. Feel free to have discussions clarifying exactly what they’re asking and why they’re asking. (This shows that you’re interested in their thoughts and feelings, their motives, their lives in general.) If you still don’t want to do what they’ve asked, you might be able to offer to do something else that would help satisfy their underlying reasons for asking. (E.g., I can’t let you borrow my car to drive to the mega-super-container store because my insurance doesn’t cover other drivers and I promised my parents I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it, but I can drive you there, shop with you, and drive you home.)

Expressing Regret

If you start with an expression of regret (“(I’m) sorry, but…”), the interaction will go better. No, you haven’t done anything wrong, and this will not be interpreted as an apology, just an expression of regret that you can’t (won’t) do what the person wants you to. This is a ritualized utterance, and the lack of it would signal that you don’t care about being polite, and therefore you don’t care about the relationship. Presumably, even if you’re not feeling sorry or “sorrowful” over the missed opportunity to perform the specified action, you are sorry about letting the person down (or at least about being in this awkward situation), so you’re not being dishonest in saying this! If you do actually regret the missed opportunity, you can certainly add a sincere “I wish I could….” or “I would love to, but…”

Giving Reasons

If you give a good reason, you show how reasonable you are. People expect give and take in all sorts of relationships, even casual ones (just with very different levels of what sorts of actions will be given and taken): I do things for you, and you do things for me. If you refuse to do something for me with no apparent reason for your refusal, you seem to imply that you’re not willing to do things for me in general, and thus not interested in continuing a relationship with me. (I am not important enough to you that you are willing to put yourself out for me.) Giving me a reason why you can’t (won’t) do it shows that you are normally willing to do things for me when you can, and that you do care. Common reasons to refuse requests for action include that you have a previous commitment, you don’t know how, or you’re not feeling well. (It’s okay to be vague about the prior commitment or your particular symptoms – no need to reveal anything personal.) Common reasons to refuse requests for information would be that you were told in confidence, that the topic is too painful or difficult for you to discuss, or that you’re just guessing and don’t want to spread rumors.

Reassurance

 If you reassure them that you care about the relationship, it is easier for them to accept their disappointment about this one case where you wouldn’t help them.

You can do this by

  • directly acknowledging the relationship:   “You know I love you, but…” “You’re a good friend, but….” “I really enjoy working with you,” etc.
  • acknowledging your debts to them (to reassure them that you are aware of these and will reciprocate at other times): “You’ve done so much for me, but…,” “I really appreciated when you came through for me (on some particular occasion), but…,” “I know I owe you one, but…”
  • promising future action (assuming an ongoing relationship): “I’ll help out next time,” “After I turn in this big project on Thursday, I’ll have plenty of time to do whatever you need me to do.” “Can I get back to you when I’m feeling better?” “I’ll make it up to you,” etc.

If someone shows signs of discomfort when you make a request

There are a few options available, depending on how important it is to you for this person to comply with your request and how uncomfortable they appear:

  • You can back off, giving the other permission not to perform the action or answer the question: e.g., “Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked,” or “Never mind, I’ll do it myself” or “Oh, you don’t have to tell me, if you’d rather not,” or “Sorry, that’s not really my business, is it?”
  • You can explain why you made the request, to show that you’re not trying to take advantage of them, or not just being nosy, that you’re asking because it’s important, or because you care, etc.
  • You can offer reciprocity. If you’re asking for an action, offer to do something for them. If you’re asking for information, offer a similar confidence, to inspire reciprocity and trust. (That is, if I’m asking you whether you’re enjoying the class we have together, I might share my own opinions about it before you tell me yours; if I’m asking you if you had a happy childhood, I might confide details of my childhood to you; etc.) If I trust you and open up to you, you’re more willing to trust me and open up to me.

Be aware that if you do not take advantage of any of these options, just letting the request hang there or repeating it insistently, the person you’re talking to will feel even more uncomfortable. They may eventually answer the question you asked (because most Americans can’t stand long pauses in conversations), or do the action you requested, or flatly refuse to do either, but they will resent you for having caused them this discomfort.

Scholarly Sources

  • Austin, J.L. (1975). How to do things with words, 2nd Ed. Harvard University Press.
  • Birner, Betty J. (Ed.)(2012) Introduction to pragmatics. Wiley-Blackwell
  • Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge University Press. .
  • Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41–58). Academic Press.
  • Holtgraves, T. M. (2002). Language as social action: Social psychology and language use. Erlbaum.
  • Lee, James J. and Steven Pinker. (2010.) Rationales for indirect speech: The theory of the strategic speaker. Psychological Review 117(3): 785-807.
  • Peccei, Jean S. (2012). Pragmatics (language workbooks). Routledge.
  • Pinker, Steven, Nowak, M. A., & Lee, J. J. (2008). The logic of indirect speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 105, 833–838.
  • Searle, John. (1970). Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sperber, Daniel, & Deirdre Wilson (1986). Relevance: Communication and cognition. Harvard University Press.

Recommended (more accessible) reading

  • Elgin, Suzette Haden. (1993 [1980]). The gentle art of verbal self-defense. Barnes & Nobles.
  • Elgin, Suzette Haden. (1997). How to disagree without being disagreeable. Wiley.
  • Tannen, Deborah. (2011 [1992]). That’s not what I meant! How conversational style makes or breaks relationships. Harper Perennial.
  • Tannen, Deborah (2002). I only say this because I love you: Talking to your parents, partners, sibs, and kids when you’re all adults. Ballantine books.
  • Wikipedia.org’s “List of English Language Idioms”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English-language_idioms

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